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Early Adversity May Shorten Child's Life

WEDNESDAY May 18, 2011 -- Deprivation and neglect can cause premature aging of children's chromosomes, a new study suggests.

Researchers examined DNA samples collected from institutionalized children (62 boys and 47 girls) in Romania taking part in a long-term study. Some of the children remained in the institution, while others were transferred to high-quality foster care at different ages.

Children who spent more time in an institution before age 5 had premature shortening of chromosome tips (telomeres) when they reached ages 6 to 10, the researchers found.

"The telomere is designed to protect the chromosome, so accelerating how early in life telomeres lose length correlates with shortened life span," principal investigator Charles Nelson, director of the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Children's Hospital Boston, said in a hospital news release. "Children institutionalized early in life have shortened telomeres, which may lead to health consequences downstream, including premature aging."

He and his colleagues found differences between girls and boys. The strongest predictor of telomere shortening for girls was the amount of time spent in the institution before 22 months of age. For boys, it was the amount of time spent in the institution before 54 months of age.

The study was published online May 17 in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Previous research has linked shorter telomere length in adults with cognitive defects and increased rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

"One question we are currently studying is whether telomere length can recover as a child spends more time in foster care, or whether the shortening we observed reflects a permanent change," Nelson said.

More information

The University of Utah has more about telomeres.

Posted: May 2011


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